By Jeremy Balan
Early on in its Academic Athletic Association semifinal match, visiting Washington High School looked to be primed for an upset over top-seeded Balboa.
But the Bucs quickly returned to the form they showed in their undefeated league season, winning the final three games en route to a 20-25, 25-20, 25-15, 25-15 win on over the Eagles on Tuesday at Balboa High School.
“After the first game, it felt like it was slipping away,” Balboa senior outside hitter Sophin Ngoun said. “But there were five seniors on the court and we worked so hard to get here. We weren’t going to let it slip.”
Ngoun led the Bucs with a team-high 18 kills, including seven kills and an ace in a momentum-swinging second game that incited a Balboa crowd that was eagerly awaiting for something to cheer for. Fellow outside hitter Donna Liu also had a significant impact with 14 kills and an ace in the match.
“We have great character on this team,” Balboa head coach Val Cubales said. “We had some problems last year with girls not getting along with each other, but this year they just have awesome chemistry. It’s beautiful to see.”
After the second game, the Bucs took back the match’s momentum entirely, while Washington appeared to fall out of sync and never really challenged in the final two games.
“Our passing wasn’t the best,” Washington head coach Jennifer Gee said. “It was just so-so, and that changed a lot of how we could set up our hitters.”
Even though the Washington passing was off, the Eagles turned to standout senior outside hitter Jessica Nicerio early and often, and she responded with a match-high 20 kills.
“In my opinion, by far, she’s the best player in the AAA,” Gee said. “She’s got power, she can play defense, she’s a really good leader and a great teammate. She can do it all.”
When Nicerio was in the front row, the Washington attack ran efficiently, but Balboa would go on extended runs when she got caught in the back row on rotation.
“Every time she was in the back row, we took advantage,” Cubales said. “She hits the ball so hard and our defenders have a lot of trouble with that speed ball, so in practice, I was hitting at them to get them prepped for Jessica.”
With the win, the Bucs advance to the AAA final on Friday night at Kezar Pavilion, where they will face Lincoln, which beat Burton in three games in the other semifinal.
Balboa and Lincoln had their only regular-season meeting on Nov. 2, where the two previously unbeaten teams slugged out a five-game thriller, with Balboa eventually coming out on top. That was Lincoln’s only loss in AAA play.